New boy Family First Senator Steve Fielding called for evidence yesterday that when it comes to the media “the key factor that determines ideas is ownership”. The idea was, he argued, a myth because it was individual journalists and editors who determined what was published, not proprietors.

Perhaps Senator Fielding would benefit from a quick read of Graham Freudenberg’s recently published political memoir A Figure of Speech before actually voting for the supposed media reforms. Freudenberg’s book details one of the rare published examples of the way owners can distort the democratic system.

Freudenberg, the long time speech writer for Labor leaders, gives chapter and verse of the way that the Fairfax press in 1961 set about trying to destroy the Menzies coalition government. The Fairfaxes were angry at the impact on classified advertising revenue of the credit squeeze imposed by the Government. A decision to support Labor was made by chairman Warwick Fairfax and, “with initial reservations, the managing director, Rupert Albert Geary (Rags) Henderson, whom [Labor Leader Arthur] Calwell in 1946 had dubbed ‘this Quilp-like creature’, a reference to the grotesque villain in Charles Dickens’ Old Curiosity shop.

Calwell gave Henderson a promise not to raise the question of nationalisation in his first term and Henderson set about using his staff to prepare speeches and statements for Calwell that naturally received prominent coverage. According to the Freudenberg account, Max Newton, then editor of the Financial Review devised for Labor an economic policy that “nearly destroyed the Menzies Government.”

Peter Fray

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